By Robert H. Orenstein and Katherine Reinhard
The Lehigh County controller characterized District Attorney Jim Martin’s plan to deploy county detectives to monitor ballot drop-off boxes as voter intimidation.
“What seems clear is that Jim Martin wants to use taxpayer dollars to play partisan politics, intimidate voters, especially voters of color in Allentown, and lend further credence to the Big Lie about widespread fraud in our election system,” Controller Mark Pinsley said in a press release issued Thursday.
On Tuesday, Martin warned voters that county detectives will monitor ballot drop-off locations.
“If voters are observed dropping off more than one ballot, they may face prosecution and could be exposed to fines and penalties not to exceed $2,500 or be imprisoned for a term up to two years, or both, as provided in the Election Code,” Martin said.
Martin is a Republican; Pinsley is a Democrat, who is unopposed in his party’s primary for the 16th state Senate District seat.
The primary is May 17, but voters can begin filing ballots by mail or at designated drop off boxes starting Monday.
As the reaction to Martin’s announcement played out this week in Lehigh County, the advocacy group Disability Rights Pennsylvania had already warned that attempts to crack down on people who drop off multiple ballots could disenfranchise voters with disabilities who need assistance to deliver or mail in their ballots.
Under the law, anyone with a disability defined by the federal Americans with Disability Act can designate another person to drop off their ballots by filling out a form.
“We believe ignorance about the concept of a ‘designated agent,’ both on the part of election officials and the general public, is muddying the waters and risks widespread disenfranchisement of voters with disabilities,” the group said in an email Monday to members of the state Legislature, Gov. Wolf and acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Leigh Chapman, whose office helps administer elections and voter registration.
"In fact, there are many errands we can run for each other. Some are common. Some are less so. None are illegal. Except one: I cannot legally drop off her absentee or mail-in-ballot without a bureaucratic process."
— Marley Parish (@marley_parish) April 28, 2022
“Voter education is important and the only tool to ensure that voters with disabilities are knowledgeable about their rights,” the group said.
Martin was asked Friday about concerns raised by Disability Rights Pennsylvania.
“If people have a document showing they are designated to drop off someone’s ballot, it would probably be a good idea to bring that documentation along with them,” he said in a statement released by his office.
He added that county detectives, if they see video of someone dropping off more than one ballot, would investigate further, if necessary.
Pinsley said he is exploring whether he can prevent Martin from proceeding with his plan.
“We are looking at the legality of withholding the pay of detectives who take part in these brazen suppression tactics. Jim should be focused on real crimes such as gun homicides and gun violence, but would rather waste our tax dollars pushing the dangerous Republican lie that mail voting and drop boxes have corrupted our election,” Pinsley said.
The state Legislature also recently considered the use of designated ballot boxes.
The state Senate on April 6 passed a Republican-backed bill that would eliminate multiple voting drop-off boxes in a county and require instead that mail-in ballots be either mailed to or turned in at a single, central location at a county seat.
And Thursday, three Democratic Lehigh Valley lawmakers — Reps. Mike Schlossberg, 132nd, Peter Schweyer, 22nd, and Jeanne McNeill, 133rd — announced they intend to introduce a bill that would allow spouses and blood relatives to deliver mail-in voting ballots for spouses or relatives. They call it The Decriminalizing Spouses Act.
Martin’s warning came three weeks after he announced details of an investigation by his office that found at least 288 cases where people deposited more than one ballot in a voting drop-box last fall — a violation of state voting law.
But Martin said at that time there would be no prosecutions because it was impossible to determine the identity of most of the violators.
No-excuse, mail-in ballots remain legal in Pennsylvania – even as Senate Republicans in Harrisburg moved to eliminate ballot drop-off boxes, and the fate of Act 77, which allowed no-excuse ballots, is in the hands of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Under the law, a person may deposit only one ballot envelope. Martin said county detectives will physically monitor Lehigh County’s five drop-off locations and will review 24-hour video surveillance recordings.
Robert H. Orenstein and Katherine Reinhard are reporters for Armchair Lehigh Valley, a political newsletter, where this story first appeared.
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